Stephen M. Walt

Connecting the dots

It’s hot and sticky here in Boston, and I feel a rant coming on. Just consider the following items from today’s headlines, around the web, and my inbox: Item #1: An independent report on the fiscal condition of America’s state governments (chaired by Paul Volcker and Richard Ravitch) presented a gloomy prognosis about their budgetary ...

Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images for NASCAR
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images for NASCAR

It’s hot and sticky here in Boston, and I feel a rant coming on. Just consider the following items from today’s headlines, around the web, and my inbox:

Item #1: An independent report on the fiscal condition of America’s state governments (chaired by Paul Volcker and Richard Ravitch) presented a gloomy prognosis about their budgetary prospects. State and local governments face exploding health care costs, declining revenues, lots of deferred expenditures, and anticipated cuts in federal support. Even if the U.S. economy grows more vigorously, the states are going to be in trouble for quite awhile. And that means we will all be living less well, because all the good things that governments provide (roads, bridges, schools, public safety, parks, museums, etc.) will be in shorter supply.

Item #2: Along the same lines, here’s a report by Lisa Margonelli (hat tip: Andrew Sullivan) on the increasingly fragile condition of America’s electrical power grid. As she points out, not only have we under-invested in this critical national resource, but we’ve done so at a time when weather is becoming more extreme (due to climate change) and the grid is thus under greater strain. If you want to keep reading this blog, maybe it’s time to install that portable generator (or a lot of spare batteries), but that won’t help you if your ISP link goes down too.

 Item #3: Dylan Matthews of the Washington Post offers a quick and easy guide to the latest budget battle between Republicans and Democrats over which elements of our current fiscal policy (i.e. taxes, credits, expenditures, etc.) we are going to preserve after December 2012. As Matthews’ projections suggest, the obvious thing to do is to let the high income Bush tax cuts expire and keep some of the other measures. This approach would reassure the markets and stabilize our long-term fiscal situation, yet reduce the risk of a fiscal contraction that would tip the economy back into recession. But don’t expect the GOP to go along with anything sensible like that.

Item #4: A new report by the Project for Defense Alternatives, reminding readers of the following basic facts:

a) the U.S. and its allies spend four times more on defense than our potential adversaries do. I like a margin of safety as much as anyone, but this is ridiculous.

b) Key U.S. allies perennially free ride on Uncle Sucker. The United States spends 4.8 percent of GDP on defense while our NATO allies in Europe spend an average of 1.7 percent, Japan spends 1 percent of GDP and South Korea spends only 2.8 percent. 

c) China, our supposed emerging "peer competitor," a rising China, devotes only about 2 percent of GDP to defense.

Either we have our strategic priorities all mixed up, or the DoD is doing something very wrong. I would note in passing that Mitt Romney thinks we aren’t spending enough, that we ought to cut taxes even more and that we also need to balance the federal budget.  Needless to say, this combination makes no sense, and Romney (who seems to know a lot about clever accounting when his own fortune is involved) is being disingenuous or simply lying.

Is there a direct connection between these various items? No, because economies are complicated and cutting U.S. defense spending wouldn’t automatically translate into more money for other items (include state and local governments). But there is clearly a connection between the amount the U.S. spends (trying to) provide global security in lots of far-flung places and our ability to pay for desirable things here at home, including things like education and infrastructure that are essential to our long-term well-being and strength as a nation.

Unfortunately, over the past forty years so-called conservatives in the United States have done a great job of convincing Americans that it is foolish, counter-productive, and even unpatriotic to pay taxes for the benefit of other Americans, while at the same time declaring that it is one’s patriotic duty to pay taxes so that we can occupy other countries, build military facilities on every continent, and make it easier for Europeans, Asians, and others to live better under the umbrella of our protection. Unless, of course, you are really, really rich, and can hide a lot of your income in some nice offshore tax shelter. It’s been a brilliant piece of salesmanship, but the results are exactly what one would predict: a gradual hollowing-out of the features that once made America the envy of the world, and a bunch of allies who aren’t even all that grateful for the sacrifices made on their behalf.

I’m inclined to think that this phenomenon also reflects the rampant individualism that now permeates U.S. culture. If you’re doing really well, what does it matter if the broader society is doing worse? Just put your kids in private school, live in a gated community, and let other poor schmucks depend on an eroding set of public goods. If you’re a politician, forget about telling the truth or trying to do right by the voters you’re supposed to represent, and just do or say whatever will keep your major donors happy and help you get reelected (and land a cushy lobbying job after you retire). If you’re a tenured academic, spend your time writing articles that nobody reads and avoid topics that might be controversial, because being relevant or provocative won’t help your career. If you’re a pundit or a policy wonk, don’t worry if you’re repeatedly wrong or if your advice leads the country into costly quagmires, so long as you don’t pay any price for past errors and you still get invited on all the talk shows. 

I also think the roots of this problem can be traced in part to America’s remarkably favorable overall position. Because the United States found itself was in such a blessed position after the Cold War-wealthy, powerful, with no serious rivals, etc. — we could afford to be lazy and irresponsible in the conduct of public affairs. We could take on a lot of foolish projects overseas, allow our national discourse to be polluted by special interests, and let various rent-seeking groups within society pilfer the public purse for their own pet projects. So when al Qaeda showed up and seemed to be a more serious challenge (albeit one we exaggerated), we went off on an ill-conceived crusade that we weren’t even willing to pay for. And absent a serious rival to focus the national mind and impose a bit more discipline on our discourse, I doubt this is going to change any time soon.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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